How are we able to control the temptations that continually trip us up--or our impulsive actions?
How can we change our behavior?
"So, in seeing it differently the temptation is less. And the way we do that, as Aristotle understood years ago, is through habits.
We have habits of politeness. We have habits of self discipline. And you change your mind by changing your behavior.
Or as the Alcoholics Anonymous folks say, you fake it 'til you make it. And so by changing your behavior in small ways, that helps you control your impulses on the big things."
-David Brooks, interviewed by Diane Rehm on NPR about his newest book, The Social Animal, on Thursday, March 10, 2011-
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You're definintely going to think I'm crazy--but I love Thursdays.
- 6:30 am: Wake-up. It's my "sleep-in" day
- 9:00 am: Leave home
- 9:30-11:30 am: Spinning & yoga classes
- Noon: Arrive at work
- 9:20 pm: Arrive back home
- 11:00 pm: Bedtime
Every single Thursday, I get to sleep in until 6:30 am, have a leisurely cup of coffee, eat breakfast, catch up on email, read the newspaper, catch up on household chores if I get ambitious--before I head out of the house at 9:00 am--and return home more than twelve hours later at around 9:20 pm. A jam-packed day.
Every week it's the same story. It never varies. Before I know it, it's already 8:15 am and I've got only 45 minutes to hurry up & get dressed in my gym clothes, pack a bag with my work clothes, mix up a Green Smoothie, pack my lunch and dinner--because I work late on Thursdays. Before work, I go to a spinning class, and then a yoga class. And on the way into work, I always get to listen to the last half-hour of NPR's Diane Rehm show. Every week. Same routine.
Do I ever just skip it all? Sometimes, when I'm so engrossed in what I'm doing at home, and the clock is inching closer & closer to my 9:00 am departure time, I think, "Why not just skip the work-out? Why not just skip packing my lunch, my dinner, or making that smoothie? Just pick up lunch & dinner at the cafeteria?"
Never happens. Why? Because, it's too much of a habit. Just like Aristotle said! And I look at the "temptation" to skip my work-out, or to buy my meals in the cafeteria a bit differently--"skipping & buying" is not such a great choice--it's just seems like the easier choice. I always, without fail, feel better after my work-outs. I feel better for the friends I get to see at the gym. And, buying my lunch & dinner, instead of packing them? No contest. Packing is always cheaper--tastier--healthier!
OK, just so you know--Discipline is not my middle name! By nature, I'm not the kind of person who would "love my Thursdays". Inside of me is a procrastinator who could easily lean toward lazy. That's why I am so amazed by the "Power of the Habit".
So What Does David Brooks Have to Do with My Thursdays?
I'm a David Brooks fan. I'm a Diane Rehm fan. And this Thursday Brooks & Rehm just came together and surprised me.
If it weren't for my Thursday schedule I wouldn't have had the opportunity to catch Brooks' interview on Diane Rehm's radio show.
When I heard him talk about how positive habits help overcome our impulses to do the easy thing, I definitely took notice. I thought, "I've got to dig up his exact words on that!"
The back story: In case you don't know, Brooks is a long-time New York Times columnist, with a more conservative moderate well-balanced outlook. For the past three years he's been working on his latest book, The Social Animal, because, as he describes it:
"Well, it started with my day job. I was trying to figure out, why do 30 percent of kids drop out of high school?
And when I went into that, I began to look at the first three years of life. And then, when I began looking there, I looked at a lot of the brain research and what I found when I began that, interviewing those people and reading all those books, was that they're giving us a different view of life, a different view of who we are.
And it answered a lot of problems, a lot of my political policy problems. Why do so many of our problems fail?"
So, yesterday morning, while I was in my "newspaper-reading" part of the morning I read Brooks' March 7, 2010 Op-Ed piece, "The New Humanism," which looks at our present political, financial, policy-making, and educational institutions through the lens of his research in the fields of science, medicine, and sociology. Here's what jumped out at me as I drank my coffee:
You get a different view of, say, human capital. Over the past few decades, we have tended to define human capital in the narrow way, emphasizing I.Q., degrees, and professional skills. Those are all important, obviously, but this research illuminates a range of deeper talents, which span reason and emotion and make a hash of both categories:
Attunement: the ability to enter other minds and learn what they have to offer.
Equipoise: the ability to serenely monitor the movements of one’s own mind and correct for biases and shortcomings.
Metis: the ability to see patterns in the world and derive a gist from complex situations.
Sympathy: the ability to fall into a rhythm with those around you and thrive in groups.
Limerence: This isn’t a talent as much as a motivation. The conscious mind hungers for money and success, but the unconscious mind hungers for those moments of transcendence when the skull line falls away and we are lost in love for another, the challenge of a task or the love of God. Some people seem to experience this drive more powerfully than others."
I don't know about you, but seeing those five qualities in black and white, inspires me--puts words to semi-formed concepts I've sometimes thought about--and it seems to me, we'd all be well-served to start working on these characteristics in ourselves!
Thusday Yoga Class - Why Would I Ever Want to Skip Yoga?
Once I started to make yoga a habit--making it a three-times-a-week practice instead of an occasional one--I started to really enjoy it. The habit, the regularity, made all the difference.
Now it's more effortless--the balancing poses, the muscular poses, the flexibility poses, the breathing, the slowing-down--it's all easier. I'm progressing. I notice the micro-improvements in my flexibilty & strength. It's actually amazing to me.
But the best part about Thursday is my teacher, Meghan. Anyone who listens to podcasts of Krista Tippett's American Public Medica radio show, "On Being" is someone I want to hang around with.
While we did warm-up poses yesterday, Meghan played this excerpt from Krista's March 3, 2010 interview with Seane Corn, a yoga teacher. Click here for the entire transcript, or to listen to the interview.
Ms. Tippett: Let's talk about what happens in yoga, whether it is relaxing or stimulating or, you know, more of a physical experience or more of a mystical experience. When you first start taking yoga classes, I mean, again, depending on the kind of class you're taking and the kind of teachers you have, you hear a lot about what's going on with your breath and your body, with your joints, with energy, with toxins. I mean, how do we know, what do we know about what yoga is doing, you know, really practically that is so unusual, that is unique and distinctive?
Ms. Corn: Well, there's two — let's stay on the physical for a moment in that any time you're moving, you're increasing the respiration and the circulation within your body. And that has an effect on your lymphatic system. The lymphae moving through your body more systematically helps to draw toxins out. So through …
Ms. Tippett: And do they measure that? Are there people who've measured this?
Ms. Corn: I'm sure.
Ms. Tippett: OK.
Ms. Corn: I'm sure. And it's not just with yoga; it's with any form of physical activity. So, just on a physiological level, you detox your body, you increase your flexibility and mobility, you create more space in your muscles and your joints and your bones, and you feel better.
And so what makes it unique, though, is by coupling it with deep and rhythmic breathing, it has an influence on the parasympathetic nervous system. It helps to align the mind and the body so that you stay calm and focused.
So it's physically stimulating but mentally grounding. So you walk out of a room feeling alive, but in your body and in your center. Not hyper, not depleted. So it becomes a meditation in action that has a very positive influence on your physical body, again, depending on whether it's a physical practice or a restorative practice.
Yoga. Physically stimulating. Mentally grounding. Feeling calm, focused, and alive.
As my yoga teacher so aptly said--orthopedic doctors will recommend yoga to benefit you bones & joints. The cardiologists will recommend it to reduce stress--and benefit your heart.
The Best of Brooks' on the Social Animal - The Hidden Sources of Love, Character and Achievement
Listen to Diane Rehm's entire interview with David Brooks or read the transcript here.
I love radio--but if I want to remember what was said--the written word wins, hands down. Here's my attempt to remember some of the best of Brooks' interview, culled from the transcript.
What's the Social Animal about?
For generations, American culture has celebrated the power of the individual. But recent brain research suggests the idea of community may be more important to humans than previously thought.
Simply put, we’re not rational animals, we’re social animals. David Brooks, New York Times columnist has spent three years culling research on sociology, neuroscience and philosophy to understand how emotions shape our lives.
He explored how these findings might change the way we see ourselves, conduct business, manage relationships, and practice politics. Brooks believes humans crave contact and community above all else.
The Strength of a Parent's Influence on Babies & Children
Why are we so good at talking about rational things like economics and economic interests, but so bad at talking about emotion?
And really what babies are wired to do is invade our minds sort of and download what's happening. And that's a beautiful process. It's also a tough process. Moms lose on average 700 hours of sleep in that first year of a baby's life. They get interrupted on average every 20 seconds and so it's a very intimate connection, but it is out of that merger of minds that an individual emerges.
The importance of social connections to happiness & success
If you go into a kindergarten class ask kids this--who is friends with whom in that classroom? Some people are aware of friendship networks and those people have a social sense and they'll do very well in life.
One of the things we should really be cautious of is relying too much on e-mail--the research shows that so much of our real communication is face to face, it is verbal, that just e-mail doesn't spread communication very well.
One of the clear signs in the research is that the more you’re around people, the happier you're likely to be. Not only people that are alive, but even people who are dead,--some of us commune very well with writers who died hundreds of years ago. That's a real legitimate source of communion and sociability.
Why it's important to have people around you who disagree with you.
When you get into this research, you realize how little you know about yourself--and how complicated the world is.
And if you go with that sense of modesty, then you realize you need people who disagree with you to correct your own weaknesses and your own ignorance.
So you need the conversation. And there are a lot of people, I would say, on both sides who think that they know the truth--they know what we should do--and the people who disagree with them are just getting in the way. And let's just get them out of the way.
On the importance of laughter.
And one of the things I've learned is that laughter comes about when we establish a social connection. So researchers have studied when people are laughing.
It's very rarely in response to a joke. It's usually in response to when we're doing something in common together. And the people who do the laughing are usually those talking, not those listening. And they do it because they had attention in a relationship where they just found their asynchrony.
And that's how laughter flows. So laughter is a tool we use to bond ourselves together.
Why music, art, and sports are important to our children--and to our schools.
Yeah, well, we have a gigantic bias in our culture to overvalue – or to value – things that are conscious and seem hard and are measurable.
And I'm for those tests. I think we need some accountability but I'm also for the other stuff – the music, the art, the playtime.
And I'm for it for a number of reasons: one, the real key to wisdom is how do we educate our emotions?
People think, oh, our emotions are just our emotions. But, no, you educate your emotions by art, through literature, by moving with characters, by surrounding yourself with certain sorts of people and not other sorts of people. And that's how one's emotions get smarter.
And, then even more practically, I was with an educator recently and he said, if you want to know why kids stay in high school, it's the ABC's -- it's athletic, band and cheerleading.
And there are a lot of kids who are sort of on the margins of high school life, but that gives them meaning and that keeps them in school.
And, so, the art and the music is tremendously important for the fulfilled -- the really fulfilled individual. But some of the athletics and the other things are important because they keep people emotionally connected to the schools.
A Startle Test - A quick measure of someone's character.
There are a couple of practical things I mention in the book.
One of them I say if you're dating someone, one of the things you can do is startle them. And when you look at someone's startle response -- some people just get angry and they have certain temperament that gets them angry when the unexpected happens.
Some people laugh and think, oh, that's funny.
And so if you startle someone you can tell a lot about their temperament. And if somebody has a temperament that is naturally empathetic they're going to be more sensitive to others. That's not going to mean they're going to make bad decisions. I suspect they'll make better decisions.
Controlling impulses and "The Mischel Marshmallow Experiment"
Sam in Cleveland: "Regarding David's research please comment on our impulsive actions. There have been many times in my life when I consciously decide against performing a certain action because it doesn't make sense. Yet, I often find I end up performing the very same action that my conscious brain warned me not to perform. And I do not know why, and, often, regret it."
Brooks' answer: Yes. Oh, that's me in front of the refrigerator.
And so that's a sign of how our conscious mind can do things, but it can't control the very different complicated processes unconsciously.
And so there's a famous experiment, which I cite in the book, called the Marshmallow Experiment where a guy named Walter Mischel took four year olds, put them in a room, gave them a marshmallow and said, "I'm going to come back in ten minutes If you haven't eaten the marshmallow, I'll give you two."
And some kids can wait seven or eight or nine minutes or ten minutes or 12. And those kids 20 years later have much higher college completion rates, 30 years later much higher income.
Some kids just popped the marshmallow right in their mouth. They can't control their impulses and they have much higher drug and alcohol addiction problems later in life and are more likely to go jail.
And it's because some people have grown up in homes where actions lead to consequences. And they develop strategies to control their impulses. And the way they do it is not so much in exercising iron willpower. Four-year-olds really don't have that.
They learn to see the marshmallow differently. So some of the kids will say, oh, it's not a marshmallow. It's a cloud. Or they'll put a frame around the marshmallow. So in seeing it differently the temptation is less.
And the way we do that, as Aristotle understood years ago, is through habits.
We have habits of politeness. We have habits of self discipline. And you change your mind by changing your behavior.
Or as the Alcoholics Anonymous folks say, you fake it 'til you make it. And so by changing your behavior in small ways, that helps you control your impulses on the big things.
What really motivates people?
Bruce: My question centers around the concept of motivation, whether motivation is a combination of both rational thinking and emotion or one or the other.
I'm always amazed at people -- say take a Mother Teresa as an extreme example, perhaps -- someone who found the motivation to make incredible personal sacrifices over the course of her entire life doing work that very few people would want to do, whether they were paid of not.
And where does that -- that kind of motivation come from?
Or, you know, on the other end of the spectrum, perhaps, a guy who is motivated to get up at 5:00 in the morning, head down to Wall Street and work an 80-hour week in mergers and acquisitions or, you know, whatever it is, to build his own personal empire.
There doesn't seem to be a lot of people who are able to muster and sustain the kind of motivation to do extraordinary things, whether it's in the business field or, as they say, making tremendous personal sacrifices to serve humanity.
Brooks: Yeah. So, I think the conscious mind is motivated for success and status and the things we're aware of.
But, unconsciously, we're motivated by something that in the book, I call : Limerence.
It's the moment when the skull line disappears and you lost yourself in -- in a task or in something else, where you feel that moment of transcendence--you're not even aware of yourself.
And sometimes that happens while you're working and you're doing a good job. You're just so into the task you're lost in it.
A naturalist feels it out in the environment. Believers feel it when they feel lost in God's love.
And, I think, we're all motivated for those states, those moments when self consciousness fades away. And we're involved in something transcendent.
And, I think, that applies to people who are doing great selfless things like Mother Teresa.
I think it also applies to people, you know, who are writing software code or something. Sometimes doing something phenomenally difficult they get so lost in the task it's really a delicious feeling.
And for scholars, for example, there's a great book called, "Uncertainty." And it describes that moment when you've been struggling with a problem and, suddenly, the answer becomes clear to you. It wells up and you have it solved. And it's a moment of ecstasy. And some people, some scholars, chase that their whole lives.
Have habits worked in positive ways for you--helping you to regularly do something you'd otherwise skip?
Has anyone else found that yoga's benefits have increased as your days of practice have increased?
Opinions about Brooks' qualities of attunement, equipoise, metis, sympathy, and limerence?
Any fans of Diane Rehm, David Brooks, and Krista Tippett's "On Being"?